‘To Catch a Killer’ Review: Shailene Woodley Tortures Herself (and Us) in Dull ‘Silence of the Lambs’ Copycat

BAFTA winner Damián Szifron co-writes and directs this stale serial killer thriller that leaves a poor taste.
"To Catch a Killer"
"To Catch a Killer"

If a tired retelling of a serial killer thriller premieres in theaters and nobody sees it, did it actually happen? Unfortunately, yes.

For “To Catch a Killer,” her first feature in two years, Shailene Woodley (who also produces the film) attempts to craft her own take on the inimitable Clarice Starling. But we’ve all already seen “To Catch a Killer” before: The thriller is a watered-down notch in the belt of psychological serial killer dramas in the vein of everything from “Silence of the Lambs” to “Zodiac,” even “The Dark Knight” and “The Batman.” Imitation? It’s not always the highest form of flattery.

The film marks director Damián Szifron’s English-language debut. Once a hot filmmaker after collaborating with producer Pedro Almodóvar on 2014 Cannes-selected satirical film “Wild Tales,” which had the biggest opening in Argentinian film history at the time, Szifron effectively disappeared from filmmaking for over a decade despite being set to helm Mark Wahlberg’s “Six Billion Dollar Man” remake. Now, “To Catch a Killer” is Szifron’s misdirected (literally) comeback, with a script he co-wrote with Jonathan Wakeham.

The film opens with an impressive massacre: An expert sniper slaughters more than 25 random people throughout Baltimore by shooting into high rises during the New Year’s Eve fireworks show. Eleanor Falco (Woodley) is one of the first cops on the scene of a particularly devastating murder of a young boy; soon, she gets recruited by the FBI’s chief investigator (Ben Mendelsohn) to help profile and hunt the killer.

Per the official synopsis (yes, this even includes a cringe-inducing desperate call out to Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling herself), Eleanor’s “tortured psyche” makes her the “only person who can understand the mind of their assailant and bring him to justice.” But why is she scooped up by the FBI so casually and so quickly? Because Eleanor has a traumatic background and is really smart and other vague reasons.

"To Catch a Killer"
“To Catch a Killer”Vertical

Most of her “investigating” comes from eavesdropping on what the real FBI agents, led by Mendelsohn’s character, are saying. It’s not until the halfway point of the movie that Eleanor announces the agency should be looking into ex-military veterans with sniper backgrounds due to the shooter’s marksmanship. Wouldn’t this be one of the first things the FBI would do? Even a basic procedural show like “Law & Order” would know better — and provide better pacing.

Mendelsohn’s casting as an FBI agent is distracting enough as a “Dark Knight Rises” alum, which makes it glaringly obvious just how badly “To Catch a Killer” stacks up against Christopher Nolan’s films and other crime dramas. The color palette is the same — depressing grey — as is the general mood, as endless stakeouts prove to be fruitless, the cops only finding leads after yet another shootout has occurred.

Throw in heavy-handed political commentaries on gun violence, right-wing media, and first-person-shooter videogames, and “To Catch a Killer” makes even less sense. It’s hard not to laugh out loud when Eleanor reveals her own dark past that led her to becoming a cop: It’s shot like a comedy, and makes us wonder if Szifron was even taking Woodley’s obvious acting vehicle seriously or not.

“To Catch a Killer”Vertical

It would be grotesque to compare how “To Catch a Killer” tries to do a beat-by-beat remake of David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” a true masterpiece. It would also be in poor taste to convey the revulsion of violent sequences that tackle everything from racist motivations to the need to cleanse the U.S. for a national “reset” in the vein of the Qanon devout. There is no commentary or thoughtful explanation to any of it, just blind statements sent out to agitate and confuse its audience.

It’s enough to make us wonder the truly crazy: Are we supposed to be rooting for this killer? Considering how much we’re forced to believe a homeless veteran is the one slaughtering dozens of people in public due to a head trauma from combat, it’s a valid question. But there’s no real answer here, just as there’s no real message to the film. It’s no “Zodiac,” no “Silence of the Lambs,” and certainly no movie worth watching.

Rating: D

Vertical releases “To Catch a Killer” in theaters on Friday, April 21.

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